Smog and Mirrors

Smog over Bengaluru. Smog over Mumbai. I thought the days of smog were over in the UK, but I just missed the closure of Heathrow airport due to yet more smog. We can’t take the air for granted.

When we talk about walking, the idea of ‘passing through’ tends to be figured in terms of neighbourhoods or landscapes, not in terms of passing through a substance, or an atmosphere. Weather is sometimes mentioned, but unless extreme, probably momentarily. The idea that we walk through something resistant to us, that slows us down, figures very little in narratives of flâneurie or even dérive.

I started thinking about this at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, where several of the artworks seemed to point towards a more difficult experience of navigation.

For example, within Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger’s  Pyramid of Exiled Poets, in the courtyard at Aspinwall House, a passageway plunges you into a dark labyrinth, sometimes almost completely dark, so that you feel your way along the walls, occasionally meeting others who have paused where the passage widens. Voices speak through the walls – the words of exiled poets, spoken in their own languages.

“the drowned landscape is here
in the dark the separated
lonely hanging step is here”

(Yang Lian, ‘Stroller’)

There is a more problematic ‘walking through’ in the headline work, Chilean Raúl Zurita’s Sea of Pain, in which we walk through a tank of sea water in memory of Galip Kurdi, the undocumented brother of the much-photographed drowned child, Aylan Kurdi, whose family attempted migration across the Mediterranean from Syria. It was not quite clear whether the sea water is meant to bring us closer to that experience. If so, its tranquillity is at odds with a devouring and hostile sea. Is it a monument or an abstraction? The lost, individual child was too recently alive and particular and nobody’s symbol.  The blunt appeal to individual conscience seems not to acknowledge the problem of a shared responsibility.

On the other hand, perhaps the point is simply to slow down perception, induce a frame of mind in which we pass through the thought calmly and meditatively, but without too much ease.

“Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge

Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;

And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave

When I am talking with you.”

(Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Dedication’)

In Mattancherry, an installation of mirrors is intended to reflect old and new, and disorientate, in response to the dizzying changes in Kochi or elsewhere, while in Japanese artist Yuko Mohri’s work, sonic and kinetic sculptures draw attention to the movements of the air, as they ring delicate bells in a tiled, laboratory space.

Everywhere one walks in Fort Kochi, the walls are covered with text from the English translation of Argentian Sergio Chejfec’s novel Baroni: A Journey. Impossible to read them all, or to know where to begin, instead the whole of Kochi walks through a narrative of a Venezuelan artist (Rafaela Baroni) that it can only read in fragments.

In another building, the layering of Desmond Lazaro’s embroidered veils across identity photographs and documents, hung across the gallery, suggests a different kind of difficulty and layering of his Family Portraits. Here, it is not so much the viewer who experiences difficulty, but who understands it through the multiplicity of partly obscured layers.

The week I returned, on the radio, they were talking of air pollution in London, visible as you look down on the city. There was detention at airports for many of those travelling to the US. Others, myself included, walked through and with crowds, holding words of protest. Walking is only ever walking through.